Spooky Spock

This is the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet yet. A revolutionary people-focused search engine, Spock, launched into public beta today.

About 30% of all search traffic is people related – about 20 billion search queries per month. How is it different from Google or other mainstream search engines? If you Google “boxer”, you’ll get the Wikipedia entry for boxer dogs. Spock will give you Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson.

Spock scans social networks such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and other sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and blogs. It then pulls that information into a concise summary about a person, such as his occupation, interests, age, marital status, photo, religious affiliations, and hometown. A click on the summary reveals related Web sites and known associates.

I decided to check how far I had been ‘spocked’:

Myself Spocked

Wow. It already knows I work in the IT industry, though it got my title wrong. But, this shows it has already crawled my LinkedIn profile. Since I am virtually a nobody on this planet, let’s check out what Spock comes up with for an Indian sportswoman currently in the news for her stellar performance:

Sania Mirza Spocked

Notice how it has correlated her Wikipedia entry with her photograph on a magazine cover, and with her fan sites. “Disambiguating people, and then collapsing multiple sources of information into a single entry, or entity resolution, is part of the secret sauce of a people search engine.”, says Tim O’Reilly, who seems excited about Spock. That’s not all.

As a community user, I can add my own ‘tags’ to this person. I can, for example, tag her as “stupid” or “sexy”. Me and other community members are able to ‘vote’ a tag ‘up or down’. What is alarming is that even if you “claim your profile”, the Spock community gets the final say in the vote, as per this Time article.

How easily can this be used for snooping, privacy intrusion, and humiliation? Let’s say I’m a male student spurned by a girl in college. I tag her as “easy” on Spock. My friends and their friends vote the tag up. Another college student, who has heard rumors about an easily available girl in college, searches for her on Spock. And gets all the information he needs to start intruding her private life. As a more family friendly experiment, I searched for a female student using a common Indian first name:

Anonymous Profile on Spock

(I’ve deliberately obfuscated the last name to respect the person’s privacy). I did not use any special tags, at all. The link to the MySpace site told me more about the person than, in this case, I wanted to know.

Spock has already ‘indexed’ over 100 million people. It doesn’t just crawl and index metadata. It tries to figure out who each document and web page is about.

Spock is not driving around town taking photographs of streets and shooting your pets or living room like Google. But it is driving through each and every narrow street, lane, path and avenue of cyberspace, while looking at you, what you’ve done, your relatives and friends, and trying to understand and make sense of it all. You think such a site will be banned? Forget that, even getting your own profile deleted may be legally difficult, according to Time.

This beast has only discovered my LinkedIn profile yet. Then it will discover me on Orkut. Once it crawls my blog, it will understand that the ‘About Me’ page really talks about me, and extract tags about my beliefs from it. It would probably guess from the URL of my blog that ‘mahendrap’ is my username on WordPress. It will then be able to link all the comments I’ve ever made in the blogosphere to me. It will crawl Flickr and YouTube and find pictures and videos. And like Mr. Spock, it will be completely unemotional about it all. It will methodically gather, process, and organize everything it finds about me. Can anything ever be spookier?

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30 thoughts on “Spooky Spock

  1. I had tried Spock a few months ago and found it interesting, though I couldn’t find myself in the search results :(

    It makes searching for people very easy,but there is a very good chance of this service being misused..

  2. hmm. its scary. This is like google scanning our gmails and posting relevant ads on the side panel. Never know what all they have. I can imagine a sci-fi movie being made in a couple of years… someone discovers huge databases of ALL humans on earth… then they shoot a thrilling adventure movie trying to save the world from the evil IT corporation..!!

  3. Excellent post! Spooky indeed and it does raise some very interesting questions.

    To me, “publicly available and hence we can do whatever we want with it” seems to have too much ambiguity to firmly stand on legal ground. But I guess it does. Besides I dont anything about legality – it just seems like it can be massaged to whatever you want. Besides having others tag on you – that seems wrong. They are simply equating “general consensus” to truthhood. While it generally works, not always and can result in slander/libel?

    I think the problem is perhaps many of us have a selective/filtered view of the internet and it is really not an appropriate place to share any information about ourselves. We have a lot of “trust” in the internet on information about us would be used – too much trust. Under the current norms/rules, if we say/reveal something about ourselves on the internet – be it a public forum, or a blog, or otherwise, then that information seems to be “publicly available” and hence amenable to all sorts of processing like here. But most of the time
    (a) we reveal some views to “internet acquaintances” as say in a discussion forum. This is sort of like saying something to a friend or friends at a small party of known people. Nothing stops the friend(s) from share that info to others. We just that trust that it wont happen, and if it does, the friendship is broken. The damage can be limited and we are also perhaps able to assess the risk before-hand. But with the internet and risk and the potential for damage is exponential and also unbounded. But we never think of it that way – we just trust that “no one else will notice”.
    (b) We reveal the info in the hope of making internet acquantances (as in a blog). Our expectation is that this info would not be “misused” i.e used in ways we don’t approve of. We hope to make acquaintances with people who share our views or can debate our views in an interesting way. But doing this in the internet is not ideal and we are taking a risk. It is like suddenly announcing your private views in the middle of a city festival where there are thousands of people, and hoping only “like-minded” people would care about them.

    Question: If in our blog and say everytime we post on a forum, we put a disclaimer “My views cannot be used, reproduced in part of fully without express written permission from me” – then would Spock honor it? If not wouldn’t that be on shaky legal ground?

  4. Captain KA to Science Officer: Spock, Give me a reading on…myself
    Spock: (raises eyebrows) Interesting. I find no traces of you in the system
    Captain KA: What do you mean, no traces? I am 71 kg and 5-9. This is unacceptable
    Spock: Humans, and their emotions. Very strange. I believe trying to sign up might help
    Captain KA: Oh. Ok. Sorry. My bad. Scotty, Warp 2 to Planet Signup

  5. Pingback: correlate » Blog Archive » Spock Launches Public Beta

  6. Great post and great comments, too!

    I’m worried by this new technology. It seems far too open to abuse.

    My blog is copyrighted: I wonder if that in any way protects me. I should assume it does not.

    I think I’ll just have to learn to be much more discrete in what I say about myself on the net.

    Also, I wonder if Spock can tell the difference between factual information and remarks made in jest? Let me test that: “I, Paul Sunstone, own stock valued at over a million US dollars.” Now, if at any time in the next few years I start getting marriage proposals from numerous people I’ve never met, I will know Spock has no sense of humor. :)

  7. Arun: No problems with the long post, and your comment is very insightful and very true. You have beautifully illustrated how we trust the Internet more than we should. What makes Spock scary is that it is able to aggregate all the bits and pieces we’ve strewn about here and there, and make sense of it in a scary way.

    Regarding the legality of Spock’s use of the ‘publicly available’ information, even I’m not a legal expert. Spock’s claims to privacy protection include not going behind firewalls, and not going through password protected sites. The latter is absolutely flimsy, since it excludes sites where the public can register themselves and then access other registered user’s profiles/blogs/forum messages/comments/etc. From a devil’s advocate perspective – they’re correct in claiming that such info is also ‘publicly available’ since anyone can register and access the information.

    My (current) hypothetical answer to your question would be that:
    1. The term ‘my views cannot be reproduced’ has no standing. It is being worded in the context of the copyright laws, where you state ‘no content on this website can be reproduced…’. The sad part is, Spock doesn’t infringe on copyright laws since it doesn’t reproduce any content – it simply links to it.

    2. When we blog on hosted sites, comment on forums hosted on other sites, we do not fundamentally own that content – whatever legal notices you may append to it are null and void. The question arises when you host your own site on your own domain. In that case, there’s some chance of putting up such a notice. I’m not sure how firm/shaky the legal stand would be however, if your site is fully accessible by the public, including search engines and bots.

    That’s why ultimately, if you don’t want your views to be known to everyone in cyberspace, don’t express them in any publicly accessible site.

  8. Harsha/Oemar: wait a while. It took a dozen computers more than 18 years to crack the game of checkers. With 6.6 billion human beings, many more web pages to analyze, with thousands of ‘attributes’, I reckon it will take them at least a couple of years. :-)

    Paul: Welcome to my blog. You have a very, very interesting take! LOL! :-) Jokes apart, those Ph.Ds. behind Spock who’ve developed the natural language processing algorithms would probably have considered humor, but I really don’t think they would have conquered it yet. Humor remains one of the last frontiers behind which humans may still protect themselves against cold brutal number-crunching logic. (But note: the word ‘jest’ in close proximity to a fact may be a vital clue to Spock) :-)

    Krish: LOL!!! :-)

  9. I have to agree with the statement that you should not express views that you do not want the entire world to know about publicly. In fact, there have been cases of people fired for stuff they wrote on private blogs. Just recently a fellow jeweler was terminated from an editorial post at a major jewelers magazine for posting her (negative) opinion about a specific type of precious metal clay on a friends blog.

    I am very open about my life on my blog, but I own a business. I do not have to answer to anyone except myself and my family. Luckily they are very accepting of my willingness to just spill my guts on the www.

    But if I did work for someone else, I would be much more careful.

  10. You need look no further than this humble soul. I am an open book. But I work for myself. I couldn’t give a damn about the world.
    But then that is the way I deal with life: straight and in-your-face! This is not meant to be a criticism of anyone or anything.

  11. I must have temporarily left my brains (in the Operation theater with my cap) when I wrote that puerile, off-topic shit. Deserves to be deleted. Or deserves to stay there to remind me how much of an ass I can be sometimes! :-)

  12. rambodoc –

    As long as you are willing to own it, being an ass is not all that bad. Hell, if at least a few people consider you a pompous, self-righteous jerk then you are probably doing something right.

    Not that I think you are an ass. I don’t know you well enough to make such a call. But, you know, just sharing. You could be the one surgeon in the world without a god complex, who knows?

  13. Oh christ, I hope that did not offend. I come from a long line of surgeons and I think the god complex is kind of necessary when you are cutting someone open. Sorry if I offended anyone. O.K., I should shut up now.

  14. Knock, knock…., hullo, where is the blog owner these days?
    Possibly composing a mega-researched and double hyperlinked magnum opus on how Darwin’s great grandfather predicted that African elephants would be eliminated by a meteor created by a chunk of moon-rock broken off by a drunk Indian astronaut in a NASA space mission, followed by comments from sundry docs that these elephants deserve to be eaten anyways before the meteor hits them, and counter arguments from American Greeks that the elephants have rights and need to be housed under the Taj Mahal to protect them. Of course, the final icing on the cake would be from a certain Madrasi blogger who would play a piece of Himesh music in forty different ways to show how the reverse theory of evolution affects the music industry whereby men become apes.
    And so on….
    (do I even need to put in a smiley after this?)

  15. ROTFL!!! LOL!!! Rambodoc, you have me in splits! :-D

    Sorry folks, no magnum opus in the works. Just when I was getting afraid that I was getting addicted to the blogosphere, the gods determined I stay away from it the whole of the past week. One day in the Niagara falls in Mumbai, two full days in off-site training, my baby daughter not keeping well, and so on – many things coalesced to keep me away from my blog, forget even my friend’s blogs. Kept snatching time whenever I could without much success.

    Rambodoc: I almost thought of using your comment as a blog post! :-)

  16. Mahendra –

    It is good to hear from you. I hope that your daughter is o.k.

    Rambodoc –

    Although I disagree with every philosophical viewpoint you have espoused, I must admit that you are smart and funny. Which is refreshing. And it makes you a pleasure to argue with.

  17. a really good post Mahendra! spooky is the word! am going to check out if i am around on spock. best to be careful of what one writes on the net, even in a comment. this is going to make me doubly careful

  18. i am not on spock thank god! i think they must be doing the facebook people or something. i do have an orkut account but there’s much there. guess i will remain anonymous for a while. :)

  19. Nita: Just like I said to Harsha and Oemar, just wait a while. Spock already knows one Dr. Nita Kulkarni. While you can enjoy your anonymity for a while, there’s no way you can avoid getting Spocked!

  20. And btw, I know that Dr. Nita Madhukar Kulkarni! She is my cousins’s cousin! Though we share the surname Kulkarni she is not related to me from my husband’s side, but from my mother’s side. My mavas bahin’s atyabahin. We always make a joke about the same name.

  21. I fear the police will have a heyday with Spock. Sure, sometimes they might use it to catch crooks and criminals. But I worry they might also use it to create files on dissidents and activists.

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